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Abstract Dialogues: ‘Repercussions’ at the Eubie Blake Cultural Center

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In Repercussions: Redefining the Black Aesthetic, a choir of artists calls you to be still, pay attention, slow down, and savor the glory of a gallery full of Black contemporary art. Curated by Thomas James, this exhibition at the Eubie Blake Cultural Center is an opportunity to recognize a connection between multimedia works by Baltimore- and DC-based Black artists and your own lived experiences. According to the exhibition text, the show “explores the genealogy, spiritual, political, and economic power that objects possess” through media, methods, and meaning that tell stories and reveal personal histories. 

A repercussion typically refers to an unintended consequence occurring after a period of time. In the case of this exhibition, it’s looking back to the 1950s and 1960s when Black artists like Sam Gilliam and Ed Clark made work that inserted themselves into contemporary abstract art. Some sixty years later, the artists in this show are again challenging notions of what art can mean, specifically what can be designated as “fine art.” These artists are redefining an abstract Black aesthetic in a time where figurative exhibitions are extremely popular, a clear reminder of Black abstraction’s revelatory and revolutionary power.

The exhibition Repercussions challenges the viewer to think about the ways in which abstract ideas and forms are represented. The show’s larger focus is material culture, specifically Black material culture featuring objects that contain history and tradition. Techniques like weaving, assemblage, collage, and painting are highlighted, and each thread, brushstroke, cut-out, weave, application, and arrangement of material reifies the idea of creating through memory and ritual. 

 

Suldano Abdiruhman, building the world pt. ii, 2021, various gathered ephemera, artifacts, poems, drawer, text, chamomile

This show presents 31 works by the artists Adewale Alli, Alexandre Amegah, Antonio McAfee, Asha Elana Casey, Bria Sterling Wilson, Charles Phillippe Jean-Pierre, Desmond Beach, Ky Vassor, Lehna Huie, Lionel Frazier White III, QRCKY, Rebecca Marimutu, Sarah Stefana Smith, Suldano Abdiruhman, Victoria Walton, and Wesley Clark. For many of the artists, the creation of the works is a meditative practice, channeling the Divine and connecting the artist with some ancestral heritage.

Historically the methods of collage and assemblage have been inextricably linked to Black culture, using what has been discarded to create a priceless object. In this show, there are several movements of collage, some making cross-disciplinary references to Black abstract painter-predecessors like Alma Thomas, while assemblage works call back to Jack Whitten’s legacy.

 

Lehna Huie, Water Spirit, 2020, fabric, canvas strips, acrylic, fringe, window panes, candelabra
Victoria Walton, I Am Not in Control, 2020, ceramic sculpture
Rebecca Marimutu, Portraits, Adhered #11 and #10, 2021, photographic collage on wood board

In Rebecca Marimutu’s Portraits, Adhered #10 and #11, dual collages contain webs of black, grey, and red photo portraits on paper that have been ripped and layered and reapplied; with eyes peeking through the viewer, there is a figure there and also not there. In Charles Phillippe Jean-Pierre’s Rhythm & Blues I, fraternal twins, and disparate pieces of paper, are drawn into a unified whole by the skilled hands of its creator. Bria Sterling-Wilson’s five analog paper collages housed in white frames depict Black people in leisure, in fashionable poses, and in community—the figures with faces gaze at you, their beauty removed from the pages of a magazine and refigured here. 

In Ky Vassor’s Catch a Spider by the Toe, webs of red, white, and blue and cotton sprigs activate a wooden pallet frame wrapped in a fence of brown twine; tendrils of red and yellow climb across the central canvas, before outstretched hands. One of the hands hovers above two Black figures, and cotton plant branches and white stars frame the piece, suggesting that these two individuals are trapped in the confines of the work.

And when you see the glittering golds of Asha Elana Casey’s Chris—an incandescent portrait made of rhinestones, glass mosaic tile, and acrylic—the figure’s grill shines against a matte black-framed abyss. His gaze expresses a sense of the realization of his own sovereignty. He holds dominion over the confines of his frame and his beautiful strength captures the viewer’s attention. 

 

Lionel Frazier White III, One for the Dead, 2021, wood assemble, candle wax
Wesley Clark, The Gift, 2019, latex paint, acrylic paint, lumber, soil, resin, plywood
Repercussions: Redefining the Black Aesthetic, curated by Thomas James at Eubie Blake Cultural Center

In Wesley Clark’s “For Which We Stand,” a deconstructed image of Old Glory is displayed prominently with its elements—jagged wood, barbed wire, red and blue paint—spread across the wall, the fragmented shapes reminiscent of slave ship illustrations. The artist creates a direct link between a horrid past that schools in the South are now banned from teaching and illustrates how the labor and suffering of Black enslaved people enabled this country to exist.

In Clark’s The Gift, Kehinde Wiley-esque stained glass panels portray two central figures. The curator explained that they represent the artist and his son, as well as his desire to impart vulnerability as a virtue. The figure stands with his heart haloed in his hands, and directly beneath both of their feet, earth (another surprising material) sits in a round hole carved into the wood platform upon which the glass is installed. The sculpture is suggestive of a gravestone or another receptacle for grief, and reminds me of the cycle of life and death, the emergence from and the return to dust.

Lionel Frazier White III’s One for the Dead offers a different kind of religious iconography, simultaneously summoning both the Black sacred and profane. White uses scraps of wood—a door deconstructed, what looks like a floorboard and a fence post—aligning them into an assemblage with melted wax and candles and empty tequila bottles. Reminiscent of sidewalk memorials that people set up to remember a loved one’s transition from this world to the next, this piece feels like the states of mourning and dirge, but also stands as a testament to the majestic fortitude and power of Black creation and its infinite possibility of evolution and revolution. White uses discarded pieces of wood to build a portal for communing with the sacred—what previously existed as discarded remnants is now prominently repurposed.

 

Wesley Clark, For Which We Stand, 2016, spray paint, framing samples, barbed wire, wood, acrylic, screws, and nails
Bria Sterling Wilson, collage series, 2020

We are in an age of information, and according to the exhibition text, “it is imperative for artists to continue to take risks and ensure that their perspectives are seen and acknowledged.” At times, the show challenges the viewer to define what they think “fine art” is or what comprises it. Some of the methods featured here, like weaving, have historically been devalued for their relation to craft. But how much of those notions of what is or isn’t art is influenced by the Eurocentric and male-focused lens?

Material is magnificent and magnified in this show, and as a whole, the works beg you to come closer and to truly see them. They talk to each other, and rich conversations spring up between them, the gallery functioning as an interlocutor between ancestors, predecessors, and these artists.

Sarah Stefana Smith’s Flag to the Abyss, using bird netting and thread drenched in black, is an antithetical twin to the red, white, and blue flag piece by Clark in the other room. Which one is more representative of the legacy of the United States’ treatment of Black individuals? This exhibit suggests multiple perspectives, that possibly both can be true. Black people have survived relentless mistreatment and abuse by the United States government and its actors and, in spite of that trauma, have created an abundance of glory and beauty. 

In Suldano Abdiruhman’s building the world pt.ii, we see a ritual frozen in time. There is a quiet reverence in the ephemera and artifacts of chamomile, soil, netting, stones, and poems of various words—“steady hearted,” “toward,” “undone.” I imagined the artist chanting the words, writing the incantations, the lyrics, and distributing the soil on the gallery’s floor.

 

QRCKY, King and Lost One, 2019, PLA on wood canvas
Repercussions: Redefining the Black Aesthetic, curated by Thomas James at Eubie Blake Cultural Center
Asha Elana Casey, Chris, 2020
Antonio McAfee, Students, Workers, and Elder, 2021, acrylic medium and pigment ink
Wesley Clark, For Which We Stand, 2016 (detail)

It’s a transformative work that echoes the range of emotions invoked by Desmond Beach’s Uplifting Melancholy, Draped in Emboldened Hope, across the gallery. Beach’s piece is another ode to the reverence of black religion and black power, while also grappling with racist stereotypes that are projected incessantly onto Black people. The shell of a worshiper, wrapped in a knitted white cloth, kneels atop a Black liberation flag and a crocheted rug. Arranged before them is a plant and two prayer candles, one with James Baldwin on it, and an altar that holds a mammy figurine. 

This scene also felt familiar, another moment to pause and contemplate where the past calls to the present. In Antonio McAfee’s Students, Workers, and Elder, a broad and sweeping breadth of black and white acrylic medium and pigmented ink beckons you and seems to want to envelop you, mirroring the draping wrap in Beach’s work before it. As you stand closer, you see that there are historic photographs hidden within, collaged black men and women working and toiling, their images and their labor made visible so many years later in a Baltimore gallery.

The artists in Repercussions create artworks that are extensions of legacy, and their ability to make art is a positive repercussion of the legacy of their predecessors’ labor. Their work emphasizes art-historical movements, but also personal and collective ancestry, exploring the passage of time, and its impact upon material, how materials contain history.  Repercussions is about melding and synthesizing the past and present, reflecting on those dynamic relationships, telling the artists’ own stories in concert with others.

 

Suldano Abdiruhman, building the world pt. ii, 2021, various gathered ephemera, artifacts, poems, drawer, text, chamomile
Ky Vassor, Catch a Spider By the Toe Paper, 2020, twine, plastic, graphite and acrylic on wood
Desmond Beach, Uplifting Melancholy, Draped in Emboldened Hope, 2021, mixed media
Alexandre Amegah, Sitting at home, 2018, wood, ink, acrylic
Sarah Stefana Smith, Flag to the Abyss, 2020, mixed Media, thread, bird netting, fiberglass screening, paracord, spray paint
Repercussions: Redefining the Black Aesthetic, curated by Thomas James at Eubie Blake Cultural Center

Photography by Akea Brionne Brown for Eubie Blake

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